Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Making Change, without money

My current school is trying to roll out a new program for the Fall. Without giving too much away, let’s just say it involves scheduling some classes for some timeslots we haven’t used before.

The etiquette of scheduling is that the department chairs are responsible for it, with input from the dean. I don’t micromanage, since I really don’t want to own that process. I owned it at my previous school, and juggling the needs of students, the logistics of classrooms, the preferences of full-timers, and the (largely speculative) availability of adjuncts was a real pain.

When I approached a couple of my better department chairs to warn them about the new format, their reaction was amazing. Hmm, they said. None of my reliables immediately jumped, so let’s just wait a year or two and see what happens. Unstated, but strongly implied, was ‘this too shall pass.’

Luckily for me, these are intelligent and reasonable people, for whom the argument “and next year will be” actually worked. Still, I was amazed at the speed with which they went from ‘this isn’t immediately easy’ to ‘let’s not.’

It would be easy to rail at the complacency of the tenured, and I won’t deny that that’s there, but I think there’s a more fundamental problem. If the program fails, they’ll get at least some of the blame. If it succeeds, there’s nothing in it for them except more sections to schedule. They have every reason to foot-drag. It isn’t a personality flaw or an irrational habit; it’s actually a very reasonable response to being confronted with what is, to them, a lose-lose initiative.

I suspect that some variant of this problem haunts the public sector generally. If a service provider gets really good at providing a service, the demand for that service will increase. High performance gets punished. (Something similar happens with popular teachers – their classes always fill or overfill, so they wind up doing more advising and more grading than their less popular colleagues. That’s not to say that popularity and quality are the same thing – easy graders can be popular despite being crushingly dull – but there’s usually some correlation, at least in my experience.)

Alas. Until we come up with some sort of well-funded, clearly defined merit system, we’ll have to rely on the kindness of colleagues. I’m not holding my breath...